Frye and Tomkins on Democracy and Contempt

In a review of 1984 when it first appeared, Frye writes that the real value of the book is that the author

gives us a terrifyingly clear impression of what we don’t want for either ourselves or our children. Mr. Orwell doesn’t tell us what to fight for, but he gives us a terrifyingly clear impression of what we should fight against. And what we should fight against, according to him, is not Russia or China, not Eurasia or Eastasia, but the evil tendencies in our own minds, our own weak and gullible compromises in a contempt of law and a contempt for truth. (CW 10, 143)

What is it exactly if not these evil tendencies, driven by contempt, that have given the Harper Conservatives permission to compromise their consciences, to lie, deceive, break rules and the law, cheat, conceal, refuse to answer questions, de-route all democratic process, and generally engage in vindictive attacks on perceived enemies and malign and smear honest public servants who inconveniently speak the truth? The great psychologist and affect theorist Silvan Tomkins–like Frye, a genius with a grand theory–postulates that at the heart of contempt is a drive auxiliary that acts like an affect and which he calls “dissmell.” Dissmell is clearest in the sneer, the raised upper lip directed at another, as if other people smelled bad and were not fit for human consumption.

Tomkins points out that in a democracy contempt (which is unilateral dissmell combined with anger) is rarely used (Tomkins calls it the most unappealing affect), because it undermines the assumption of equality and solidarity with others. It is however a central affect in authoritarian and hierarchical societies, where dominance and superiority must be communicated by rejecting and distancing “malodorous” others. Contempt, as Tomkins neatly puts it, is the mark of the oppressor.

In contrast, shame is the affect central in democratic societies, because shame does not sunder the interpersonal bridge: it is not unilateral and only functions when there is already an affluence, a closeness and fellow feeling that is impeded in some way but with only an incomplete reduction of enjoyment or interest. Shame implies an identification with others, and a wish to return to the good scene of communion with the other. Contempt, on the other hand, insists on an unbridgeable distance from the other in the first place, so that there is no good scene to return to. There is no identification with the other. It is a very handy affect if you want to lynch someone, or cheat them out of their life’s savings, or if you are just part of an oligarchy that wants to avoid uncomfortable feelings of guilt (moral shame) for the misery that has been inflicted on the rest of the human population.

Compare for example, the facial display of Dick Cheney with that of Barack Obama. As far as I know, Cheney’s prominently raised upper lip is not due to any physical paralysis of any kind; it is an expression of dissmell. It is hard to imagine a sneer like Cheney’s coming over the features of someone like Obama. So when you have a leader of a government, Stephen Harper, who treats his own fellow citizens with dissmell it is best to be suspicious and wonder about the fate of our democracy.

But as of yet too many Canadian voters seem inert, immobilized, unconcerned with the erosion of democratic institutions and processes, and it is this very situation the Conservatives count on in a fear campaign directed at everybody’s pocket book.  Harper’s government is a perfect example of what Frye calls, in an essay on democracy which I will quote more fully below, a “managerial dictatorship.” Its primary model is a corporation, and thus it is naturally in conflict with democratic principles and processes. The only principles the Conservatives uphold are the rights of Canadians to own unregistered deadly weapons and to pollute the environment in the name of the economy. But, to lift a phrase from Thoreau,“whether we should live like baboons or like men seems a little uncertain.”

In contrast to the current inertia of voters is the famous reversal in the 1993 election when a negative Conservative ad ridiculing Jean Chrétien’s facial paralysis turned the election around on a dime, leaving the Conservatives, by the time the dust had settled, with only two seats in the country. It was an encouraging moment. It was uplifting to know that the voters could say so loudly and clearly that such a mean and ugly attack on a fellow human being and citizen is just not welcome here, thank you very much.

The following paragraph is from an essay Frye wrote in 1950, an essay he wrote for The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto. He is not speaking in affective terms, but the antithesis he speaks of is the same:

All governments whatever must be either the expression of the will as a minority holding autonomous power, which is able to impose that will on society as a whole, or the expression of the will of the people as a whole to govern themselves. In the former case there is an antithesis between a ruling class and the ruled classes; in the latter case there is no governing class, but only a group of executives and public servants responsible to society as a whole for what they do. The latter conception is the democratic one.  (CW 11, 235)

“Democracy,” he goes on to say, “ is thus essentially the attempt to preserve law and order in society which has superseded the primitive and outmoded idea of ‘rule.’” We now have a government, of course, that seeks the very opposite: to rule as a minority and actively undermine the preservation of law and order in its own house: the House of Commons. Our House, as Michael so rightly puts it. The Conservatives have been found in contempt of parliament, guilty as charged of obstructing parliament and undermining democracy. Consider this paragraph from Frye in the same essay:

Anti-democratic social action, of the kind intolerable to a democracy must necessarily be in the direction of withdrawing information and action from the community as a whole. It is a contradiction in terms for democracy to tolerate a conspiratorial coup d’etat aimed at the restoration of the old idea of a professional ruling class. (236)

I can’t think of a better way of describing the threat that this country faces right now.


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8 thoughts on “Frye and Tomkins on Democracy and Contempt

  1. Bob Denham

    Thanks for this, Joe. It strikes me that we’ve got a good measure of contempt and dissmell down here below the 49th.

  2. Terry Anderson

    What pseudo-intellectual rubbish. While I am not a Harper supporter, this sort of nonsense is, at best, paranoid. A minority government oppressing the people? What a joke. Be careful making doleful references to Chretien – especially while ranting over politicians’ disregard for process or institutions. As for “dissmell”, I think the affects referred to can be found on Harper. But I also see it routinely on “Michael”. Gosh…now how do I vote now? By examining issues that actually affect the country?

    1. Michael Happy

      I’ll let Joe answer for himself, Terry, but I’d like to note a couple of things: first, there were no “doleful references to Chretien,” as you put it. The point was that Canadians did not react well to the personal mockery he received at the hands of Conservatives during the ’93 election; second, Harper’s “minority government” is demonstrably guilty of all of the crimes and misdemeanors Joe lists, even though it’s a minority government. That’s a matter of public record which anyone can consult. I don’t think it is irresponsible, therefore, to put such behavior — a pattern of behavior, in fact — in a broader context provided by thinkers like Frye and Tomkins.

  3. Joe Adamson

    I seem to have touched a nerve. Issues of democratic process do not affect the country? Hmmmm…… That is exactly what Stephen Harper and his cronies say. They–and I guess you–are not particularly interested in making this country more democratic, but are happy to see it become less so.

    I don’t suppose Harper can be described as an oppressor in the same way it would apply to Gadhafi or Idi Amin. However, he and his party have undertaken no legislative efforts to improve social conditions in this country and to make life less oppressive for the most vulnerable, for the impoverished, for the unemployed. His policies consistently favor the rich over the poor and the middle class. And these things are certainly a form of oppression. Just because he can do this without personally engaging in criminal acts (as far as we know) doesn’t make it right. He has, to avoid being held to account, shown an unprecedented contempt for parliament and for the truth. So, yeah, I’d say he’s an oppressor, and he’s likely to be an even worse one if he gets a majority.

    I really don’t see much contempt or dissmell in Ignatieff. The only person I have seen Michael Ignatieff show contempt for is Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, and there it comes under the heading of “righteous wrath.” It looks good on him, as it does on Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, who rightly find many of the words and actions of our current prime minister and his cohorts, as they constantly misrepresent facts and mislead the public, disgusting and contemptible.

  4. Veronica Abbass

    Terry Anderson says: “What pseudo-intellectual rubbish.”

    What bothers you about Joseph Adamson’s post is that it is not pseudo-intellectual rubbish; it is Adamson’s critical analysis of Harper and the Conservatives supported by the words of an intellectual, Frye, that bother you.

  5. Alan

    No it is just nonsense. Written no doubt by an intellectual, not just self-described, but widely approved, but that does nothing to change a reasonable judgment.

    Blithering nonsense is how I would describe it. Did anyone actually check to see if Cheney had a baseball hit his face as a kid? I doubt it.

    Do you not think the Obaminator sneers? Hmm – you must be missing something.

    Cheney’s family is a VERY interesting story. When Obama’s kids come out as gay and when Michele takes a real job, maybe you can explain why Obama’s family is so great.

    I’d say you have a problem today.

  6. Joe Adamson

    I checked to see if Cheney had been hit in the face by a baseball as a kid, but I couldn’t find a damn thing. However, I did find a VERY interesting story about Cheney hitting someone else in the face, not with a baseball, but with a shotgun blast during a drunken hunting party. And apparently he didn’t even apologize.

    Hmm . . .

    I had no idea that Obama’s kids were gay. Do you have insider knowledge of some kind?

    In fact, no claims whatsoever about Obama’s family have been made on this blog. So I guess we don’t have a problem after all.

  7. J. Allan

    If indeed this is “pseudo-intellectual rubbish,” then the intellectually sound thing to do would be to demonstrate how or why it is rubbish. Simply calling something nonsense does not render it non-sensical; instead, the onus is upon the critic to demonstrate that indeed it is in fact nonsense. After all, it is far too easy to attack a person for having an idea; it is quite another thing to explain why the idea is rubbish, wrong, or any dismissed by any number of other value judgements.


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